The only reason a lot of people drive through Palmyra, Maine, is to get to someplace else. Palmyra has a few houses and farms, and a store with an astounding collection of indoor and outdoor American kitsch.
Yet this tiny central Maine town has gained a measure of fame at the hands of humorist Tim Sample. Mr. Sample likes to talk about Palmyra - and about locals like Wilbur Pinkam, who are not too sympathetic with impatient out-of-state people who are lost.
"Wilbur was sittin' in front of Joe's General Store in Palmyra, and he seen this car go by - it was a silver Volvo with Connecticut plates," Sample says. "He [the driver] came charging by, hits the lights up to Newport, cuts around, and takes the back way down to Pittsfield. About the 12th time he passed the store he was getting rather peeved. He'd resorted to the posture of driving that these folks from away will, where they have the road map unfolded onto the steering wheel in front of them.
"He pulled up in front of the store and he yells to Wilbur: 'How in the devil do you get to Bangor?' Wilbur says, 'Most generally, my brother-in-law takes me.' "
For many years, Sample's business has been creating stories about the likes of Wilbur, small-town Maine, and tourists; about crusty fishermen, and Black Fly Festivals.
Sample today is arguably Maine's premier humorist, speaking at scores of events each year. Almost once a month he appears on CBS's "Sunday Morning." He's also recorded a small library of CDs, tapes, and videos, and has written two books he's illustrated himself.
So what is Maine humor?
In the book "Charles Kuralt's America," the acclaimed CBS newsman remarks that "The whole drift of Maine humor ... is toward succinct replies to dense questions from outsiders."
Indeed, much of the humor shared by Sample and other Maine humorists does involve encounters between tourists and real Down East Mainers. But that's not the entire story.
Maine humor "goes back to the earliest days of people living in Maine," says the legendary John Gould, who lives in Friendship, Maine. "You had to laugh at something."
Mr. Gould, who has been writing Maine humor for 55 years, including a weekly essay for the Monitor, refrains from defining or describing it.
"It's too subtle," he says. Instead, he recommends the writings of his literary ancestors, people like Artemus Ward and Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye, as places to find the essence of Maine humor.
"I draw from the oral tradition," says Sample, who adapts old tales to contemporary situations. He adds that "humor in Maine is a necessary, vital survival tool" in a state where winters are long and where spring is referred to as "mud season."
But Robert Skoglund, a Maine humorist who has adopted stories from Sweden and other places, argues that "humor is humor." Mr. Skoglund, who at one point was working on a doctorate in linguistics, and who for many years has broadcast his humor on Maine Public Radio, says, "I write down what I hear, what makes me laugh."
His own humor is rich in stories based on the experiences of friends and neighbors.
"Actually, the term Maine humor is a bit misleading," says Kendall Morse, another respected storyteller. "Along the Maine coast, the kind of humor you'll hear is apt to be dry and understated. Sort of like British humor. If you get inland, you're more apt to run into the tall tale. I like both, myself."
However you classify Maine humor, there is no denying that it's become a trademark for this ruggedly beautiful state, which depends heavily on tourism. And few other states can claim a recognizable type of humor, as in "Illinois humor."
It was back in the late 1950s that Maine humor was "discovered." That was when a pair of Yale University students named Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan realized that they shared a love of the folklore of Maine.
Mr. Bryan had spent all his summers in Maine. Even as a child, he was fascinated by the stories and dry wit of rural people there. "From the time I was 12, I was telling stories I'd heard from old timers," Bryan says.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dodge was a consummate master at mimicking dialect and mannerisms. Neither Dodge nor Bryan actually came from Maine.
The two cut a record at the recording studios on campus - a compilation of stories they'd heard or made up. They intended to give the record away to friends, and made 50 copies.
But in a few months, the duo managed to sell an independent record producer on the idea of distributing "Bert and I ... And Other Stories from Down East."
It was this record that made famous the words "Come to think of it, you can't get there from here" - about an old Mainer who realizes that it's impossible to describe to a visitor how to get to Millinocket, Maine.
" 'Bert and I' put Maine humor on the map," Sample says. "Marshall Dodge and Bob Bryan brought this to public prominence and gave it the foundation I'm working from today."
Shortly before Dodge died in a bicycle accident in 1982, he performed and recorded an album with the Maine-born Sample.
Sample, who grew up in Boothbay Harbor, got his start as a singer-songwriter. In 1976, while opening for Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame, Stookey recommended that Sample act as emcee, rather than musician.
"I could have become offended - 'you don't like my music,' " Sample says. "But ... it worked, and people liked what I did. Later that year, he produced my first comedy album."
Not long before 2000 rang in, Sample and Bryan performed together in Brunswick, Maine. "Bert and I Meet Y2K" included the comic musical involvement of Maine's own "Wicked Good Band."
Sample and Bryan reprised their album "How to Talk Yankee" by illustrating the use of Maine terms: "Ayuh" (Maine's legendary way of saying "yes") and "Chummy" (an unfriendly way of addressing obnoxious outsiders).
The centerpiece of the evening was the duo's return to some old "Bert and I" favorites as they honored Dodge and celebrated a state full of people with an attitude, according to Sample, "as independent as a hog on ice."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society